We traditionally hold that Victorians were obsessed with death, starting from the queen’s nearly manic fixation over Prince Albert’s death in 1861. We know all about her passion for death: she wore black the rest of her life, forced palace staff to wear black armbands for ten years after his death, and even had the prince’s clothes laid out each morning for years.
Not the Victorians!
Grief was laid open for all to see. Mourning was something to be fully engaged in, to help those left behind work through their grief in a variety of ways. Let’s explore a few things the Victorians did that seem alien to us today, but that must have provided them with plenty of comfort. Note: I am not discussing the various periods of mourning and the wearing of black/grey/mauve/lavender to signify these periods, as so many others have discussed this in much better detail than I can.
Photography was fairly new in the Victorian era, and quite expensive. When a beloved spouse or child or sibling died, those grieving would frequently dig deep into their pockets to have a post-mortem photograph made. For many Victorians, it was the only photo they ever had of that person and it would be a treasured keepsake.
There was something called a “good death” in the Victorian era. Someone had a good death if he openly made peace with God, gave last words and blessings to his own loved ones, and passed peacefully without a lot of fuss. Obviously, this could only happen for someone who was dying a lingering death, which would not have been pleasant in and of itself. However, in many families, someone would be assigned to keep a journal of the dying one’s last days. In that journal, the family member would record any bits of wisdom the dying person had, whatever last words or blessing he uttered, and would be a daily account of how the dying person was bearing up until the end. There are many of these journals that still exist, which is why we know so much about mourning customs of the era.
Another item that seems morbid to us today. Victorians frequently clipped a bit of hair from their dead loved one and braided/formed it into unique jewelry. Sometimes it was braided into bracelets (these are hot antique items today). The bracelet might be simply braided hair, or it might be woven around a locket containing the dead one’s picture. Another common piece of hair jewelry was the hair brooch, in which the hair was combed and curled into a design, and worn on a woman’s bodice. It was a way to keep your loved one close to you at all times.
There are many other Victorian traditions that I think genuinely helped people through the grieving process. What traditions do you think we hold today that are particularly helpful…or unhelpful?
A post-mortem photograph of an infant child with a grieving mother
A hair brooch, probably encompassing the hair of two different family members.